(Not Alabama related, but football related... close enough for RBR? Hope so.)
The good doctor brought word this afternoon that a high school football coach in Kentucky was charged with reckless homicide over a heat-related death at practice. I have a feeling this is going to be a much-talked-about story over the coming days for the precedent it will be seen to have set.
One of the big problems that is bound to come up is that very, very few people really have any idea what "reckless homicide" means, but many will assume that they do because they've seen a few episodes of Law & Order. This problem is not helped out by prosecutors inaccurately dumbing it down for the press, like we see in the original article:
The reckless homicide charge means grand jurors didn't find that Stinson's actions were intentional or malicious, said Jefferson County Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel. However, Stengel said, "a reasonable man should have realized something like this could have occurred."
That doesn't quite cover it. So what is "reckless homicide", anyway?
(Note: I am a recent law school graduate studying to take the bar. I am not a lawyer. I am not your lawyer. This is not legal advice, just one guy's opinion. Also? This is hideously long, and I apologize in advance for that.)
The first thing to understand is that the definitions of crimes vary -- sometimes only slightly, sometimes wildly -- from state to state. "Reckless homicide", in states that call it that, tend to be relatively uniform, but it's worth looking at the precise statutes anyhow.
First, Reckless Homicide, Ky. Rev. Stat. §507.050(1):
A person is guilty of reckless homicide when, with recklessness he causes the death of another person.
The state has to prove three things: that the defendant (1) caused the death (2) of another (3) with recklessness. The first two elements seem straightforward enough, but the third needs a little more digging. What is recklessness?
"Recklessly" -- A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.
Ky. Rev. Stat. §501.020(4). There's a lot of legalese in there, but it's easier to look at it in terms of the homicide statute. There, we're talking about recklesness with respect to a result (the other person's death). So the question that will be put to the jury is essentially this one:
Did the defendant fail to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the victim's death would occur? If so, and if the risk were determined to be as severe as is required by the latter part of that definition, then the defendant is guilty.
When you compare that to the description offered by the prosecutor, it's pretty clear that the bar is set a little higher than Mr. Stengel's "a reasonable man should have realized something like this could have occurred" definition. Specifically, the allegation is that a reasonable man should have realized that there was a substantial likelihood that the child's death would occur, not just that it could have occurred.
Just The Facts, Ma'am:
Here's the tricky part. The only way to know whether the situation above fits the definition of "reckless homicide" is to know all of the facts. Unfortunately, we really don't know many facts at all.
The primary source for Hinton's post gives us this gem from the attorney's of the boy's family:
what we have learned about the coaches' conduct at the football practice that led to Max's collapse and death is inexcusable, as was the lack of urgency and the delay in seeking medical treatment after Max collapsed and never regained consciousness
You really have to consider the source and take this with a grain of salt, but clearly the goal is to cast a wide enough net that a juror can find something "inexcusable" in the coach's conduct.
You can bet that the temperature and heat index on the day in question will be ingrained in jurors' heads. They will know about every movement, exercise, drill, and precisely how long the players got to rest in between them. The jury will almost certainly hear about the player's demeanor during practice and, especially, just prior to his collapse. This, however, is only one part of the story.
My guess is that the events leading up to the player's collapse will be the weakest part of the commonwealth's case. First, practicing in 90+ degree heat in Kentucky is not that unusual, yet athletes seldom (percentage wise) require medical attention for it. Even fewer of them actually die. This is a big thing to overcome if the prosecutor is looking to show that there was a "substantial" risk, unless the player was so clearly in terrible, life-threatening condition that any moron would've known to sit him out and call an ambulance.
So, to that end, this case will probably not end up being a referendum on practicing in the heat.
The most damning evidence will likely come from the defendant's actions after the player collapsed. How seriously did he take the collapse? How quickly did he call for medical attention? What sorts of things did the coach do before help arrived to try to better the situation?
Lots of Issues Worth Considering
There are some other issues floating around on the periphery of this little powderkeg that are worth considering.
What was the 15 year-old football player's responsibility in all of this? How much of his discomfort did he express to his coach? It's a sensitive question because, at 15, how well do we really know the limits of our bodies? Could he have known how perilously close he was to death in the minutes before he collapsed? Did he know?
Nevertheless, if we pin the blame on the coach for the initial collapse and there weren't any external signs of impending danger, have we essentially just set a precedent that practicing in hot temperatures is Asking For It? If so, how hot can it be before a coach has to worry about going to jail for continuing on?
If we expect a coach to be able to see things like this coming, what is the player's role in communicating his current status to the coach? If the player isn't responsible for that, how well are we asking our coaches to know their players? How is a coach to tell the difference between "tired and working through it" and "about to collapse from heat exhaustion?"
It's much easier, and cleaner, to criticize the coach's actions or inactions. It also has much weaker consequences. If, instead of blaming the death on the hard practice, we blame it on a failure to respond adequately, the only risk is that a coach might over-react to a kid passing out, throwing up, or giving off other signals which could just as easily signal a tough work-out as a heat stroke. Still, this is a much more palatable compromise for both players, coaches, and parents.
Get To The Point, Nerd
There are a lot of interesting arguments to be made on both sides. We see, year after year, players whose lives come to an end in the heat of a summer practice. Before you take too strong a stance for the coach or for the family, keep in mind that there are a lot of places along the way where a crucial decision could have kept this teenager alive. The real question we're asking here is: at any of those points, should the coach have known that he was dealing with a life-or-death situation?
Of course, the difficulty is that -- at least until the trial gets started -- we'll be trying to have this debate and make that determination in the absence of the vast majority of facts, both for and against the coach.
What sorts of things do we expect our coaches to notice and what do we consider appropriate and adequate responses to those situations?
Whatever your stance, understand that even a guilty verdict would not necessarily spell the end of football as we know it. Criminal cases are highly fact-specific and, at the trial level, carry very, very little value as precedent.
This coach getting convicted, if he does, doesn't really change the rules of the game, and it doesn't mean that the coach of the next player to collapse is going to jail.